I complain about how hard it is to work and then realize how lucky I am to be here. And see some Hebrew and the most depressing hospital.
One quick note. I love getting emails about the site, but I hardly get any. It’s so nice to hear from people. I feel sometimes isolated here, disconnected from the states and how people are thinking about these things. So, please do write, if you’d like. Also, as I wrote before, check out my friend, Jen’s site at www.mideastdiaries.com/jensite. We’re traveling together some of the time and then doing different things some of the time and she has a different way of writing about things.
If I can complain and whine for a minute: It is so hard working here some days. I want to do a story about how Shi’ite religious leaders think about economic issues. It seems important. The Shi’ites are becoming unbelievably well organized and a potent political force. But the Americans are not dealing with them all that much. The US Treasury people are dealing with technocrats from the former regime. These aren’t Saddam loyalists, but they’re secular and largely Sunni. Yesterday, I went to the Baghdad office of the Hawza, the 1,000 year-old religious school in the Shi’ite holy city Najaf. In Najaf, the Hawza is a sprawling thing–divided up among all sorts of mosques and homes and small schools. In Baghdad, they have this one little office just off a big traffic circle not far from my hotel.
There’s a big hand-painted sign on the circle saying, in Arabic and English, Information office for Hawza. I walked in yesterday and the guy at the front desk said I have to speak with Sheikh so-and-so. I need an appointment, he said. The Sheikh is very busy. I asked for his next available appointment and the guy picked up a date book on the desk. It was completely empty–nothing written on it. He asked if the next day, today, at 10 am would be good. I said fine. He wrote it down on the page for January 1st. I just knew the guy wouldn’t be there. I had no doubt about it. But I woke up early (yeah, I know, 10 isn’t that early, but I’m rarely up by then usually) and met my driver and translator. We drove over there and the guy wasn’t around. I was annoyed and they saw that and they said I could speak to the deputy director, a young guy with a beard and a long, skinny face with intense eyes. Graduate students are graduate students, whether they’re at the University of Chicago or at the Najaf Hawza. This guy seemed nice enough and certainly eager to help, but he was so fucking annoying. He kept saying things like: you cannot answer any question without understanding the theoretical foundation of the answer. I kept asking simple questions about how Shi’ites think about economic issues and he kept giving these endless, boring lectures about Adam Smith and Karl Marx. I got excited when he mentioned that there’s this book, called Our Economy, by a Shiite leader named Mohamed Bakr. He kept saying, don’t you know Our Economy? It’s famous all over the world. Bakr is famous everywhere. I said I’m American, we never heard of it. No. Everyone in America knows Bakr’s book. Everyone respects him and knows that his economic model can work for any country. You don’t have to be Muslim. I asked him if he could tell me if there’s someone in Baghdad who could walk me through Bakr’s book and explain his economic model. He said, Henry Kissinger greatly respects Bakr. I got stern and angry: I’m not interested in Henry Kissinger. I want someone here in Baghdad. A Shiite. He told us to go to a certain mosque in Thaura.
Thaura is the new (old) name for Saddam City, the miserably poor part of Baghdad where millions of Shiites live in danger and squalor. My translator, Amjad, didn’t want to go. He said it’s too dangerous. He’s never been there, but he knows it’s no good and we shouldn’t risk it. My driver, Thamar, said it’s fine. He goes there all the time. He’s poorer than Amjad, who is middle class. And he drove a cab before he met me, so he knows Thaura well. So, we drove off. Thaura is kind of disappointing, if you’re looking forward to the worst miserable poverty you’ve ever seen. That’s what friends have told me, and maybe I just didn’t see the worst of it, probably not. It’s bad. It’s crowded and the streets are all but destroyed (unlike most of the rest of Iraq where the streets are well-paved and look as good or better than American streets). But it isn’t as overwhelmingly poor as these villages in the south of Iraq or this other neighborhood in Baghdad, the Seven Palaces, where a big gun market is. On the main street of Thaura is this amazing site: every piece of looted crap that was taken from all the government offices is on open display for sale. There’s a stretch maybe a mile long alongside the road where there are piles of copper tubing or bent up sheet metal or desks from offices and schools or broken air conditioners or spent artillery shells. It’s all so obviously looted. I felt this shock: someone should be doing something. But there’s no army around. The army has started to prevent looting, but not all that much. And they’re certainly not going around arresting people selling looted things. And who else would? I became interested in the guys selling the artillery shells. There are huge expanses of these tall (three feet?) shell casings. Some guys were loading a bunch on to a truck. I wanted to stop and interview them, but Amjad was very scared. He said it’s dangerous and they all have guns and are on drugs. We drove around, but finally, I said we should stop. I felt it was OK. We got out of the car and immediately were surrounded by all these teenage boys. This happens all over Iraq. You show up with a microphone and you’re surrounded. But usually people just pay very close attention to the interview and are quiet and respectful. I don’t normally like it. I find it confusing and distracting and it makes it much harder to think of questions and I assume it changes the person’s answers. But this was way too much. These kids were all yelling and bumping up next to me (I had put my wallet in Thamar’s glove compartment just in case). It made the interviews almost impossible. I interviewed some of the guys loading the truck. They said the shells weren’t American. They were Iraqi shells from the Iran-Iraq war. They go to battle sites and pick them up. It’s a huge boom business now because Saddam would sentence you to death for selling old shells and now it’s wide open. They sell them to Kurds who bring them up north to melt them down for the copper. They are now really cheap, something like 50 dinars a kilo. The dinar is fluctuating a lot, but 50 dinars is still almost nothing. Like 5 cents or something. Before the war they were 3,500 dinars a kilo, more than a dollar. I thought it would be a cool story, but there didn’t seem to be much else to say and then the guy running the operation, an older guy, gestured for me to leave. He was very rude, waving me off, saying they have to work. I walked up to him and said Salam Alaikum and shook his hand. Another reason to love Arabs. They often treat foreigners a bit coldly, but you just say that and shake their hand and they smile and are much warmer. But he still didn’t seem in to me being there, so the people were so loud and annoying, I gave up. We walked over to the piles of looted things, the young men following in a close bunch. The place is packed with young men, but the guys running things are all older men sitting on chairs under sloppily constructed tin roofs to keep out the sun. The old men don’t want to talk. They wave me away or walk away themselves. But the young guys can’t stop screaming things out. They say they are laborers and the old men underpay them terribly. They’re making less than they did before the war, even though they’re doing more work. But I think that’s not true. They get about 3 dollars to unload a truck and they unload several a day. That would have been a fortune for some poor kid from Saddam City before the war. They also were hurling conspiracy theories at me. The big one here is that Kurds are buying all the looted stuff ”for mysterious purposes.” I found this kind of funny. These guys either actually did the looting–many did, I’m sure–and are certainly benefiting from the looting. But they’re still saying the looting isn’t really the fault of Iraqis. It’s Kurds (or Kuwaitis, or Americans). Someone was more specific: the Kurds are selling the stuff to Iran. I think in America there’s this sense that Iraqi Shi’ites are loyal to Iran over Iraq because Iran is the Shi’ite capital. There are some Shi’ite groups that are clearly loyal to Iran. But the average Shi’ite I talk to says strongly they’re Arabs first and Shi’ites second and if there’s ever a conflict between Iraq and Iran they will certainly side with Iraq. When I’m in a big crowd, I usually feel pretty safe, especially with Amjad and Thamar hovering around me, looking out for me. But then the crowd can turn. Well, I’ve never been in a crowd that turned, but I’ve heard enough stories about crowds turning and things becoming uncontrollably horrible. So, suddenly, the crowd just felt wrong. There’s a wild look to these kids, something in the eyes and the intense energy. It felt like time to go. Also, I just couldn’t do any reporting with this big crowd yelling and bumping back and forth. I couldn’t think or focus. So, we left.
We went to the big Shi’ite mosque in Thaura. I wanted to find some respected Imam who could talk to me about Bakr’s book on the economy. Most mosques you see in the Arab world are empty and quiet except during the five times a day (three times for Shi’ites) that they pray. Then they fill up with quiet men who walk in, do their prayers, and leave. This mosque, hours before the next prayer, was packed with people. The walkway in front is covered in all sorts of Shi’ite religious and political slogans. One said ‘shi’ites and Sunni: one religion, together, but most were pushing for Shi’te political power. I didn’t see anything specifically anti-American but the implication here and everywhere you see organized Shi’ites is clear: don’t leave us out. I think the Americans will leave them out. At least the religious ones and I think that’s going to be bad in ways I can’t predict. The mosque itself is packed with people just sitting around. They’re waiting for one of the three Imams to counsel them on marriage or property disputes or to complain about no water, electricity, security. There’s no other authority in Thaura right now. There’s no one else to turn to. It reminds me of Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza. They provide social services, they fill the vacuum left by crappy Israeli and PA authorities and then it’s easy to get backing for suicide bombings and the like. The Shi’ites need proper political representation, no question. They’re almost two-thirds of the country. And leaving them largely out of the process now, the Americans are setting up a situation where they will take power in a way that probably won’t work out all that well for America or Iraq or anybody. We were told the three Imams weren’t there. These three are famously anti-American. One of them was arrested by the Americans a few weeks ago. They were out doing something and we drove around Thaura for an hour and then came back. We arrived just as the most important Imam, the guy who got arrested, named Fartousi, showed up. He wears that round black hat that Shi’ite imams where and a white dish-dash robe and a thin black gauzy overcoat. The overall impression is: this man is important. We almost reached him down this back alley to the rear entrance of the mosque when we were stopped by some guy who said he’s his press representative and the Imam will not conduct any interviews until after the next prayer, which was an hour away. We walked away and Amjad, my Shi’ite translator, was so pissed off. He said, These people are assholes. They think they are so important now. He explained that these were not big figures before the war, just local clerics. Suddenly, he says, they have press representatives and tell people they won’t talk until after the prayer, which is bullshit. I said that in English there’s this word ‘self-important’ and Amjad said, that’s it, they’re self-important. It was so hot, I was so tired, so we left back to the hotel and I napped.
I started all this complaining about how hard it is to do work here some days. The heat is unbearable and you can’t reach anyone by phone, so you have to drive around and find people and they’re not there and there’s no way to make an appointment and you end up wasting a day. But since I started writing this, I’ve moved into my other mode. I seem to have two: 1. this sucks and is hard; 2. I am so fucking lucky to be here and this is just amazing. I’m feeling more of the second most of the time. I’m working less, to be honest. There isn’t the hunger for stories from here and if I do two a week, I seem to be ahead–as opposed to needing to get one out a day like I used to. So, I can take things a bit easier and watch what’s happening around me. Also, there’s some kind of change in Baghdad. It’s no longer immediate post-war shock. People are funnier, more relaxed, and more forward-looking. That’s not to say it’s all fine. Things are pretty fucked up here. No reliable electricity, lots of looting. It’s just a sense, but the place feels more relaxed (far from fully relaxed, of course) people are joking more. A lot of what they’re joking about is how fucked up everything is. But they’re joking and laughing more.
The next day was much easier working. There are stories here that are just easy to get and stories that are a nightmare. Basically, anything that involves actually meeting a specific person takes forever if you can get it at all. Anything that involves just driving around and talking to Iraqis comes easily and is a lot of fun and there are usually surprises. I went to the book market in the morning (I think Jen wrote about that on her site). Then I wanted to do something on the sanctions being lifted, so I went to the Daura oil refinery where I had a great interview with the plant manager a few weeks ago. He’s always there and always friendly. I think I described him earlier’this great, deep smokers voice and perfect English from his graduate student days in England. He’s a short guy with long hair and holds himself with solid confidence. He’s one of these great Iraqi technocrats who made the state function so well. Oil production at his refinery is way up. They’re over 70 percent capacity, up from less than 20 percent a couple weeks ago. He says Americans are there all the time. He met with two generals the previous day. They come by to ask when there will be more gasoline available to Baghdadis so the army doesn’t have to spend so much time guarding gas stations from frustrated drivers who have to wait in line for days. The Americans come and ask questions, but he has yet to get any technical advice or any supplies or any help of any kind. He doesn’t seem upset about it. He doesn’t seem to want it. He’s running the plant just like he’s been running the plant for years. But it is constantly amazing to me how much credit the Americans take for things like getting the oil running when I have yet to see any evidence of any American soldier or ORHA person doing anything to help these technical ministries. Maybe it’s happening, but I haven’t seen it. And I’ve been looking. Another funny thing. The phone all the reporters and the army use here is a Thuraya sat phone, which only works when you’re outside with an unobstructed line to the satellite. This is a big problem, because people don’t spend their days standing outside in the sun with their sat phone antenna fully extended. So, you can never get a phone call. Whenever you call someone else’s Thuraya, you’re all but guaranteed they’re not going to answer. It’s particularly a big problem when trying to reach any of the American forces. I have called many times and I have never once had one of them answer their phone. That’s why you have to drive all the way to the Republican Palace (now called Freedom Palace) and go through a big hassle and waste several hours just to get to talk to an American who will tell you they have no comment and you have to go. With a phone, you could make appointments or at least get the official brush-off much more quickly. Dathar, the oil refinery guy, worked out this brilliant solution. He installed an antenna on his roof, ran a wire down to some handmade docking station and hooked his thuraya and a regular cordless phone up to it. I don’t understand how it works, but basically, he can be anywhere inside the refinery (where no normal Thuraya would work) and get phone calls easily. He doesn’t even use the clunky Thuraya phone, he uses the regular cordless phone which is somehow patched in to the thuraya. It’s so brilliant and simple and he was able to figure it out and build it with some wires and an antenna. I told him that the Americans desperately need this solution. Why don’t they have it. He said he knows, he always tries to call those guys and they never answer. He says every time he meets with army people he shows them his invention, but they never pay much attention. This drives me crazy. This simple thing is what the army press operation needs so badly. But they don’t do it. I’m sure it would takes weeks and they’d have to bid out the contract and get all sorts of regulations written. I don’t think I ever realized what an unwieldy inefficient mess the army is. Someone said today the obvious: they’re great at destroying things, lousy at building them up. We were joking last night that if the US really wants to fuck the French, we should just hand the whole Iraq operation over to them.
After the power plant, I went to a hospital. I wanted to just find out how the sanctions had affected hospital care. But what I found was so upsetting and so different. They said they are in such worse shape than they were during the sanctions. Before the war, during the sanctions, they had some shortages of medicines and equipment, but basically the hospitals were well functioning. They were fully staffed with well-trained doctors. They had plenty of nurses, plenty of support staff. I went to the surgery wing of the emergency room. It’s this dirty room with unpainted white walls and a bunch of gurney beds with no sheets and people lying on them in incredible pain. Nobody has an IV in their arm. There isn’t a single machine monitoring anyone, they were all looted. There’s no nurses, no support staff of any kind. A doctor was walking out as I came in and I asked him if I could ask some questions. He said he’s too tired and too nervous to talk about anything. There are only two surgeons in the hospital. I spoke with both of them. They are so tired they said. Look at my eyes, one guy said, they’re not like yours. They have to do everything. They wash the bodies, they cart patients around. Without any machines, even an x-ray, they have to diagnose patients by guesswork. They perform surgery on patients without really knowing what they’re going to see inside. They don’t have any pain killers at all. They perform surgery without any anesthetic. They can’t knock anyone out. The people lying on the beds are in agony and there’s nothing they can do about it. I put this on the radio: one of the doctors said, with such painful earnestness, my heart is squeezing, pumping, thumping for these people. There’s nothing I can do for them. He said they’ve gotten no help from anyone. There are soldiers guarding the front of the hospital, but no Americans have offered them supplies or machines or a generator or an army doctor or anything. None of the NGOs have done anything either. This pissed me off. I spent some time with the PR guy for doctors without borders. He said they’re so bored. They have nothing to do. They only handle actual crises, not routine medical care. He asked me if any of my reporter friends need any care, because their doctors are sitting around doing nothing. (I’ve heard such bad things about Doctors without borders–Mediciens Sans Frontiers, MSF–from other NGOs. They are called Publicite Sans Frontiers, because they are famous for trying to get as much press as possible. They spend massive amounts of money on themselves. Someone said I should do a story about their red wine bill. Seriously. They are always fully stocked with red wine. A friend who worked with NGOs for years says there’s a continuum from the ones who do the most work with the least expense and bullshit to the ones who do the least work for the most money and are the most annoying. MSF is the worst of them all.) The doctor said in the history of Iraq they have never faced a situation more horrible than right now. I think there are hospitals that are better off–more NGO help, etc.–but Amjad said this is pretty much the norm. He was so upset that he just left and sat in the hall. He said he would have fainted if he stayed. Most of the people in the surgery wing were there because of car accidents or because they got beat up on the street. One teenage boy came in with his family. His face was–there’s no other way to say it–beaten into pulp. He looked kind of Mayan, his face was made so round and flat by the beating. He stood there, quietly crying, while his family tried to get the doctor’s attention. The doctor wanted to keep talking to me and I wanted him to see the kid. It wasn’t that the doctor was an asshole, trying to avoid work. It’s just that there’s nothing he can do for the kid. Tell him to sit down. That’s it. He doesn’t even have ice packs. And he felt like getting word to an American audience is really important. We then went to the pharmacy of the hospital. It’s a big hospital. Lots of wings. The pharmacy is maybe the size of a small Manhattan bedroom. There is one narrow bookshelf of medicine. Most of the space is given over to saline water, the one thing he seems to have plenty of. I fell in love with the pharmacist. He’s this little guy–maybe 5’2″ and he is running around like a maniac, grabbing prescription forms, his arms always waving around, grabbing medicine, and giving it to the people who need it. He moves so quickly and efficiently, I don’t think any patient stands there more than two minutes. I asked what he wants most. I meant what medicines does he need. He said that what he wants most is to be able to get a prescription form and be able to give the patient everything on it. He said that most people who come to him can only get about 15% of the medicines they need. This is also new. During the regime, they actually had almost enough medicine for people. He is probably 40 and he said that since the day he graduated from pharmacy school he has loved every day of his job.
There are a bunch of reporters here who speak Hebrew. There’s one guy reporting for the Jerusalem Post, another guy for the New York Times. At first, we had some tentative, whispered words in Hebrew. Now, behind closed doors, we’re all yacking away in Hebrew as often as we can. I always like speaking Hebrew, but there’s something particularly fun about speaking the language here where it is forbidden. I’ve seen a few signs of Hebrew around. There’s one shop near my hotel which has an umbrella with Hebrew writing on it. It says Mai Eden, “Waters of Eden,” which is a famous bottled water company in Israel. I’d love to find out how that umbrella got here. I haven’t told Amjad and Thamar, my translator and driver who have become friends, that I’m Jewish. I did point out that umbrella to him and he said I’m wrong, it’s Assyrian writing. I told him no. It’s not. It’s Hebrew. At the book market, I saw a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary. It has the text of an Israeli newspaper on the cover and I stood there reading the Hebrew out in broad daylight and feeling a tiny bit scared and excited. There are also a bunch of books in Arabic with Stars of David on them and Amjad told me they’re about the Zionists and how bad they are. I had these thoughts flash through my mind. How I could write about how anti-Semitic these Iraqis are. Then I thought it would be kind of bullshit. I saw, maybe, six of those books in a market with thousands and thousands of books. It certainly doesn’t seem like a special obsession, unlike Jordan, where those books are everywhere. Most of the books are histories or philosophies or books to learn a trade, like computers or medicine. I don’t hear much about Jews. In fact, except when I bring it up with Amjad, I don’t hear anything about Jews and Israel or about Palestinians. It’s not the pressing issue it is in Jordan, where there are so many Palestinians and the border with Israel is right there. Amjad does keep giving me these lectures about Jews and Zionists. At lunch the other day, he was telling me that Muslims respect the religion of Judaism. It’s totally valid and comes from god. But the people who practice the religion, the Jewish, have been fixated on destroying Islam from the very beginning. He said not all Jewish want this, but many do. It does seem like a special issue for him, something he thinks about. But maybe that’s just because I keep bringing it up. I keep thinking he’s got to figure I’m Jewish. I always show so much interest in anything Jewish, any Hebrew writing or whatever. But I don’t think he’s clued in to it. Maybe Jews are too abstract a concept for him. Or maybe he just likes me so much that he can’t imagine I’m one of them. I really almost told him and Thamar the other day. I was having so much fun with them and I felt like saying it. It does feel like a lie not to say anything. But it also feels like a mistake to say something. I don’t know what would happen, but I’m here to do a job and I think it would get in the way and I’m also just scared. Scared of some kind of violence a little bit. But much more just scared that he won’t like me anymore and it will be unpleasant and awkward. I think he’d actually probably handle it well and maybe I should say something. I don’t know. A bunch of us were talking about how many Jewish reporters are here now. That there are probably more Jews in Baghdad now than there have been in fifty years. There are some Jews left (I hear estimates from 30 to 300 and they’re all cagey and don’t like talking to reporters. I just realized I meant to go to the synagogue this morning and forgot about it.) but there are a lot of Jewish reporters. I also realized that now any Israeli could easily drive to Baghdad. They just have to go to Amman, hire a car, and at the border the American army will wave them through. Even with Israeli passports I would guess. I can’t imagine too many have done that. Probably none. But it’s a strange idea. That Israel’s biggest enemy in the Arab world is suddenly open to Israelis. I wonder if the new government will be strongly encouraged by the Americans to make peace with Israel. The Americans have said they won’t do that. And it would be a big mistake to do it early–kind of like Clinton’s gays in the military thing–a way to ensure the Iraqis feel the new government is an American fraud and the war was fought for the Jews. But I could imagine it happening almost naturally as the new Iraq is more and more in the American sphere of influence. I have a friend in Tel Aviv who grew up in Baghdad and left for Israel in the ’50s. He’s dreaming of coming back and seeing his old city. He described some of the places he remembers and I’ve been to many of them. They certainly are not as glorious as he remembers. Nothing is glorious is Baghdad right now. Very often here, I find myself about to say something like: oh, that’s funny, because in Israel… Or, upon learning some new Arabic word, yes, it’s the same in Hebrew. When I’m speaking Arabic, I every now and then slip in a Hebrew word or two. They’re so close and my brain just does it automatically.